Soundbite Culture, Christine O’Donnell, and the First Amendment

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Interesting how things can work in today’s soundbite culture. (I should preface this with a disclaimer that this post does not not advocate O’Donnell as a candidate. For one, I think it would be better to have representatives who didn’t fudge their academic backgrounds, as she is alleged to have done.)

The focus shouldn't be Christine O'Donnell's purported ignorance of the Constitution, but her interpretation of it.

That said, I just noticed a video on where Andersen Cooper highlights Christine O’Donnell’s apparent ignorance of the US Constitution, showing clips in which she repeatedly asks where “the separation of church and state” appears in the constitution, showing disbelief when her opponent, Chris Coons, answers that it is provided for by the First Amendment. Cooper then highlights O’Donnell’s claims to constitutional expertise, poking a bit of fun at a candidate who so clearly doesn’t seem to have expertise where she claims.

Ah, but this is where soundbites can be so dangerous. I had a suspicion upon watching Cooper’s report that O’Donnell might have been making the semantic point that “separation of church and state” does not occur in the First Amendment (a common refrain among certain conservatives). To be fair to Cooper, he (briefly) mentions that this may have been the case. But the editing of the debate clips (and of Cooper’s spot) does not suggest that such a charitable reading of the situation is likely. So I found a longer clip of the debate online, and sure enough, it’s pretty obvious from the more extended version that O’Donnell is fully aware of the first line of the Bill of Rights, that she’s trying to be clever, arguing that “the separation of church and state” never appears in the First Amendment (having first appeared in an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptists). This is, of course, very important to many of a “strict constructionist” bent, who argue that the framers of the Constitution never intended for religion to have no place in the governmental sphere, but were in fact only barring a state church or preferring one church to another. That’s an established argument with a well-worn history, and it appears to have been the one O’Donnell was (clumsily) trying to bring into play.

In the video below, you can see the relevant pieces in full (starting with a standard political cat-and-mouse game over evolution). The first comment on this particular issue is at the 2:48 mark, where O’Donnell seems to completely misread the audience’s response—it sounds to me like they’re shocked she’s asking the question, while her smug expression suggests she thinks they’re in on the joke, realizing she just pinned her opponent. When the question of the First Amendment picks back up at 5:40, her repeated and persistent repetition of the question (in exact wording, demanding to know “separation of church and state” show up), along with her protest to Coons’ appeal to the long legal precedent in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment (again trying to pin him to the First Amendment alone, not legal precedent, saying, “the First Amendment does?” implying that the legal precedent is somehow out of bounds in the discussion). The whole thing becomes immensely clear at the 6:15 mark, where O’Donnell asks, “So you’re telling me the separation of church and state, the phrase, ‘the separation of church and state’ is found in the First Amendment?” It’s pretty clear that she not only knows that part of the first amendment, but is making a specific case about it in the debate.

This serves as an excellent example of the dangers of our soundbite culture, in which all the wrong things can be emphasized and some level of deception can occur (intentionally or unintentionally) simply by pulling individual statements out of context. In my own field, the old saying, “A text without a context is a pretext” holds true more often than not; unfortunately, most of the “texts” we deal with in our present political culture are indeed used as pretexts all too often. And this is truly unfortunate, because it impoverishes the discussion and debate.

The real question at issue here shouldn’t be O’Donnell’s purported ignorance of the Constitution; rather, the discussion should concern her interpretation of the Constitution. Is it really legitimate, given the system of government established by the Constitution, to ignore hundreds of years of legal precedent and rulings of the Supreme Court in an effort to enforce the Constitution? Is this sort of Evangelical Protestant interpretive ethic (the “forget the interpretive tradition; my reading of the original text is all that matters” ethic) legitimate when applied to the US Constitution? Is it the way our lawmakers or judges should make decisions? This is the discussion that should have come out of the O’Donnell debates; unfortunately, it appears that efforts to portray her as another ignorant Sarah Palin-type yokel took precedent over an opportunity for legitimate and potentially productive political discussion.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • I wondered the same thing, but after watching the clip, she definitely seems to have been surprised by what she was told, and her question “That’s in the first amendment?” seems to have been a genuine one.

  • I think she was genuinely asking whether he thought “separation of church and state” was in the first amendment, with the surprise reflecting “You think ‘separation of church and state’ [that’s the “that”] is in the First Amendment?”

    You’ll note that, in response, Coons was smart enough not to fall into the wording trap, quoting the amendment more precisely and then marshaling the years of legal precedent for the phrase he was using. He was aware of the stunt she was trying to pull, and his handling of it caused it to backfire. I’m pretty sure her object here was to get him to say “separation of church and state” is in the First Amendment so she could accuse him of not knowing the Constitution; ironically, the whole thing seems to have turned back on her.

    The way she tightens up her phrasing at 6:15 makes it clear enough that she was aware of the First Amendment’s content and was trying to play semantics here.

  • I like the questions you’ve raised at the end, Jason, better than the one about what a particular Senate candidate knew..

    There is a real live debate going on within the legal academy about a kind of constitutional interpretation called “originalism,” in which the “original public meaning” of the text is supposed to control judicial interpretation. It is a live topic because the view affects Supreme Court decision making, with the two Justices most identified with originalism being Scalia and Thomas. This makes the debate over originalism is politically charged because presidential and senatorial candidates tend to frame their constitutional views in popular debate in terms of whether they agree or disagree with these Justices.

    Your raising the question that popular support in some circles for originalism may be due a “sort of Evangelical Protestant interpretive ethic” is insightful and frankly the kind of critical questions I wish more academics would engage. (That both Scalia and Thomas are Roman Catholic make the question even more interesting.)


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